Another team from Brooklyn

oday, more than a year after the terrorist attacks, Lynda Spinner, manager of the AAA Travel branch in Brooklyn, N.Y., remains focused on keeping up the morale of her 15-member staff.

In this, the certified travel consultant gets more than a little help from above. Above, in this case, is New York AAA headquarters in Garden City.

Business had plummeted after the World Trade Center disaster a few miles away, yet home office management kept everyone on the staff working, Spinner said.

Not only were regular salaries continued, but scheduled raises, incentive plans and fringe benefits were retained, she said.

And the employees, all salaried workers, still earned bonuses and fam tour day credits when they met or exceeded their commission goals.

Shown at AAA Travel's Brooklyn branch during a "The policy to continue everything was an incredibly generous thing to do," Spinner said. "It was a real morale-booster. In fact, there has been no staff turnover since 9/11."

To keep everyone productive, Spinner relies on teamwork, both within the branch and with the Garden City headquarters.

For example, branch employees who need to take a day off during the week may do so, she said, by arranging to work at the Sunday telephone sales operation at headquarters.

There, the staff handles "impulse" calls stimulated by Sunday travel section advertising. (The Brooklyn branch is open Mondays through Saturdays, but not Sundays.)

Another morale-booster is cross-selling within the branch.

This effort maximizes revenue and employee productivity and, thus, the staff's eligibility for bonuses, Spinner said.

She gave this example: Customers need not be AAA members, but AAA Travel brings in many annual memberships when its nonmember clients are told about AAA's member discounts. (The first year's membership is $55, which includes a $10 initiation fee.)

Another example of cross-selling: AAA members who come in to purchase such items as fee-free traveler's checks, foreign currency and discounted theme-park tickets from the cashier are reminded that they can book discounted cruises, air fares and hotel rooms just steps away, Spinner said.

The receptionist also is part of the cross-selling mechanism. Members who come in to get free maps and guidebooks are referred to travel counselors when it's appropriate.

Counselors, who are divided into auto-routing/domestic specialists and international/cruise specialists, use a soft-sell approach to sign up nonmembers.

They point out that the benefits of membership -- AAA discounts on tours and cruises offered by preferred suppliers and reduced agency fees on air ticketing, for example -- outweigh the membership cost, Spinner said.

-- Henry Magenheim

Time-management 101

t AAA Travel's Brooklyn, N.Y., branch, employees make maximum use of their time, according to manager Lynda Spinner, who plays a major role in planning how that time is spent.

Take office seminars. Spinner schedules most in-office training -- including supplier seminars -- for the fall, traditionally a slow period following the peak auto travel months of summer. Plus, she engages only a few employees at a time in any seminar, so that the agency is always well-staffed.

When business gets sluggish, Spinner calls headquarters in Garden City, N.Y., and asks it to divert phone bookings to Brooklyn, again maximizing employees' time.

Spinner plays a major role in determining how her staff uses its time. Spinner maintains there is a misperception by some members that the branch is just a place to pick up guidebooks, maps and attraction discounts.

But in reality, she said, the branch "does everything in the travel business," especially cruises and including handling a share of the booking requests received via the headquarter's Web site at www.aaany.com.

The branch has the potential to serve all 146,453 members living in the borough, Spinner said, and also is used by some of the other New York boroughs and by non-AAA members, as well.

Double agent

or the past decade, I've been living a double life. Though I have, at times, had unkind things to say about the airline industry, I've been in bed with the enemy. I've operated my business in a large retail space that has been shared by several airlines' employees selling tickets to the public.

After being in business for a few years, I was approached by an airline-ticketing group. We opened a new office that was shared with several major airlines.

On the day Delta announced its commission cuts, it had just joined our retail space. On the day United announced its first round of commission cuts, we had four full-time United employees in our office. They were all nice people.

Richard Turen.It was interesting sharing space with airlines, watching them interact with their customers. There are just a few observations I'd like to share with you now that my secret past is public:

• The day we opened in our new location it was seven degrees in Chicago. Two little old ladies were shivering by the front door. It was 8:54 a.m., and the door leading to the airlines was supposed to be open at 9 a.m. We let the ladies in, explained that the airlines would be with them in a moment, and offered them some coffee. This resulted in a call to airline headquarters, where we were "reported" for opening the door six minutes early -- my first introduction to the airline industry's sense of customer service.

• If you are rude to an airline employee, notations can be made in your record. This record will follow you on your entire itinerary. Be nice to airline personnel.

• Airline city ticket offices can do something agents can't do to attract direct business. They can stretch, bend or break the rules. They also cash in free tickets, although they manage to anger about 75% of their customers in the process. They can say that "your travel agent should know better than this." This is something they seem to like saying.

• Each airline operates with different service expectations. One handed out its personal telephone number to good clients, another refused to do so. One had a system where counter agents who weren't busy took res calls, another let their employees read during lag time.

• The biggest difference between travel agents and airline agents: If airline agents have a line out the door, they still go to lunch at the designated time.

We needed to expand our space, and the airlines have scattered, but watching them interact with their "direct" clients would give any real travel consultant a measure of pride and a feeling that the future may be far brighter than we imagined. And, if I may speak frankly, after 10 years of sharing an office with several airlines, I don't see any reason why any sane business-person would want to sell their product.

Richard Turen owns Churchill & Turen, a leisure travel agency. He also is managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales and marketing training firm. Contact him at [email protected].

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